For Employees Only (510 Hudson Street, 212-242-3021) bartender Steve Schneider, pouring drinks began as a side gig. The New Jersey native joined the U.S. Marines after high school, but when an injury put a halt to his military career, he revisited the bar with the same purpose and orderliness that his infantry days had instilled in him. “I have a responsibility to show up and try my best to be a good employee from open until close, because the man next to me is doing the same thing,” he says. “It’s all about discipline.”
If you don’t catch Schneider behind the bar of the West Village cocktail haunt, head to your local video store (or, uh, video streaming site) — 12 years of dedicated service earned him a leading role in last year’s Hey Bartender, director Douglas Tirola’s documentary surrounding the ins and outs of the modern barkeep industry. Here, Schneider discusses his approach behind the bar, where he finds inspiration, and what he has learned about himself — and others — while slinging spirits.
How would you define your approach behind the bar?
Tolerant, understanding, team-driven and responsible. The guest gets what the guest wants, lickedy-split. Tending bar is just as much mental as it is physical, if not more. You’ve got to have a sense of humor. New York is a very expensive city. It’s fast paced and forever moving. When people visit us, it’s very important for them to see a friendly face. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that this business is filled with all happiness and joy and all that Mickey Mouse BS — you’re smarter than that. Sometimes I need to drop the hammer on people when they get out of line, especially when they disrespect women. When I do, however, I do it with professionalism.
When should a cocktail recipe stay rooted in the past, and when should it evolve?
I do what I need to do to fill the register and the tip bucket while putting out the highest quality product. If people won’t buy it, we tinker with it until they do. People change. Times change. Trends change. The only thing that remains the same is hospitality and caring for one another. I don’t have the right to judge drinks — it’s too subjective for the person who drinks it.
Is it important for you to add your touch to the cocktails you create? If so, how do you go about doing so?
I feel it’s very important to take pride in what you do, regardless if you’re planning on having a career in the bar business, or if you’re just doing it to pay the bills while you’re exploring other careers. That kind of discipline and respect will carry over to whatever it is you move on to in life. When you have heart, that personal touch will shine on it’s own. For me, inspiration comes in the form of wanting to honor my mentors and make them proud, along with a genuine desire to make someone enjoy what you serve them.
What is one of the most important things you’ve learned about yourself through your role as a bartender?
I have a lot of patience.
And what about what you’ve learned about other people — whether it’s those behind the bar or seated at it?
Everyone’s got a chance to score after a few drinks and an ounce of determination.
What spirit or cocktail plays an underdog role at your bar (one that you wish people would order more of or ask more about)?
We only stock high quality ingredients and my job is to serve people what they like and what they want. With that said, if you’d like to chat about something you haven’t heard of before or something you might want to explore, I’ll be there for you to give suggestions and steer you in the right direction. We’ve got something for everyone.
You starred in last year’s Hey Bartender. What do you hope the movie revealed about the bartending realm?
If you’re looking for a YouTube-style instructional video about how to make cocktails, then you’re not going to find it in Hey Bartender. The goal is to celebrate the return of the cocktail and the return of the serious bartender, and the few people who helped pave the way for a younger generation. The characters that make up our industry are worth watching. We’re just like you, dear reader. Just a little different…
Is there anything the movie missed or anything you wished had been more emphasized?
The director Doug Tirola and his team at 4th Row Films put four years of hard work and effort into this project. With hundreds of hours of footage, I can imagine how hard it is to fit it into an hour and a half film. He’s one of us now, and I hope he was able to inspire others to raise their level of dedication to make more films about our wonderful industry. Like I said before, there is no shortage of characters.
Any interesting spirits you’re seeing right now that we should know about?
People are all trying really hard to be different and innovative — good on them. I take a different approach where I only explore things if I hear my guests talking about them or asking about them, as opposed to acting because another bartender is doing something. Naturally, these are not rules set in stone for me. If I believe in something, I stand by it.